(Washington, DC) A new report released Thursday by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) describes 2021 as a year of “competing forces” with regard to the death penalty.
“There were many advances made in 2021, from Virginia’s historic repeal of the death penalty to the Biden administration’s halt to all federal executions,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Executive Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN). “At the same time, a few outlier jurisdictions recklessly pursued executions and death sentences this year. This regressive activity gave us serious concern.”
Virginia’s death penalty repeal — in which Catholics played a notable role — made it the first southern and formerly Confederate state to outlaw capital punishment. With that repeal win, a majority of states (26) have now either fully abolished the death penalty or instituted a formal moratorium on executions.
The halt to all federal executions and policy review announced by Attorney General Merrick Garland in July 2021 was precipitated by an unprecedented 13 executions ordered by the Trump administration. The three last executions in the killing spree took place in January 2021, less than ten days before the inauguration of President Biden, the country’s first publicly anti-death penalty president.
“Though an encouraging first step, the temporary federal execution moratorium is not strong enough on its own to prevent a future execution spree like the one we witnessed under President Trump,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “Thousands of Catholics have joined CMN in urging President Biden to take the next step to dismantle the federal death penalty — specifically, to commute the sentences of those on the federal death row.”
According to the DPIC report, 2021 was the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 30 executions and 50 new death sentences nationwide. Of those executed, all but one had evidence of one or more significant mental or emotional impairments. Two new exonerations brought the total of wrongfully convicted death row prisoners exonerated since 1973 to 186 — or one exoneration for every 8.3 executions.
Despite the continued decline in execution rates, the report notes that several outlier jurisdictions continued to pursue executions and death sentences in 2021. Of these, most notable included Oklahoma’s problematic restart to executions, which left John Marion Grant convulsing repeatedly and vomiting before his death. In Arizona and South Carolina, there were moves this year to reinstitute antiquated execution methods like electrocution, firing squad, and the gas chamber, as lethal injection drugs have become harder to access.
“Though not at all representative of the nation’s actual, long-term trajectory away from capital punishment, these scattered efforts to escalate executions require our continued vigilance,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “The recent advances toward death penalty abolition far outweigh the backslides into executions we are seeing in outlier states and jurisdictions. Capital punishment is dying in the U.S., and Catholics have renewed encouragement for the work that lies ahead.”
CMN is a national organization that mobilizes Catholics and all people of goodwill to value life over death, to end the death penalty, to transform the U.S. criminal justice system from punitive to restorative, and to build capacity in U.S. society to engage in restorative practices.
CMN works in close collaboration with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and lives the Spirit of Unity of its sponsor, the Congregation of St. Joseph.